It is a given problem in small-town America that the best and the brighest get out as soon as they can. They head for the city to make their future while their hometowns — rural America — decline.
The role of college professors, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, notes in an op-ed in the New York Times today, is “to suck talent out of small towns and redistribute it to big cities.”
We are increasingly segregated economically, politically, and culturally.
So Vance has decided he wants to do something about it. He’s moving back home.
I’ve long worried whether I’ve become a part of this problem. For two years, I’d lived in Silicon Valley, surrounded by other highly educated transplants with seemingly perfect lives. It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.
It wasn’t an easy choice. I scaled back my commitments to a job I love because of the relocation. My wife and I worry about the quality of local public schools, and whether she (a San Diego native) could stand the unpredictable weather.
But there were practical reasons to move: I’m founding an organization to combat Ohio’s opioid epidemic. We chose Columbus because I travel a lot, and I need to be centrally located in the state and close to an airport. And the truth is that not every motivation is rational: Part of me loves Ohio simply because it’s home.
I recently asked a friend, Ami Vitori Kimener, how she thought about her own return home. A Georgetown graduate, Ami left a successful career in Washington to start new businesses in Middletown, Ohio. Middletown is in some ways a classic Midwestern city: Once thriving, it was hit hard by the decline of the region’s manufacturing base in recent decades. But the town is showing early signs of revitalization, thanks in part to the efforts of those like Ami.
Talking with Ami, I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.
Vance notes that not every hometown can be saved, and not everyone has the opportunity to go back home and make a living or a difference.
“But those of us who are lucky enough to choose where we live would do well to ask ourselves, as part of that calculation, whether the choices we make for ourselves are necessarily the best for our home communities — and for the country,” he writes.